Is Community Composting an Emerging Economic Opportunity?

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Waste diversion, recycling, compost, Leon Kaye, Los Angeles, New England, bicycling, social enterprise, landfill, food waste
Volunteers turn compost at a Los Angeles community garden.

Interest in composting continues to surge as municipalities run out of landfill space and people increasingly care about how their food is grown. Four years ago, San Francisco became the first large American city to require composting. Since then, other cities across the country have joined the bandwagon, citing the need to boost waste diversion efforts and mitigate long-term climate change risks.

And considering the growing population, the fact that as much as 40 percent of food ends up wasted in the U.S., and the long hauls often required to dispose of trash, there are plenty of reasons to scale up composting. But is industrial composting the solution? After all, the evidence suggests the composting process has its own climate change impact: All that waste often travels long distances, and consumers may still carry on with wasteful habits if they know unused food will soon be out of sight and out of mind.

More community-based composting, however, could help municipalities cope with the pesky problem of food scraps and yard clippings. TriplePundit spoke with two community composting organizations: One is based on the West Coast and relatively new; another is located in New England and has been operating since 2002.

Michael Martinez is the founder and executive director of LA Compost. Born and raised in the Los Angeles area, he learned the importance of gardening and growing food on his own. His career path took him to Miami, where he became a 5th grade teacher – and it was then that he witnessed the impact diet could have on students.

Martinez eventually scored some funds to start an edible garden at his school, and it was then that his passion for composting become unstoppable. “The transformation was really incredible, as my students really had no understanding of food other than what they would see at the supermarket,” he told us. “Seeing the incredible impact that a garden could have really inspired me, as I saw the students wanting to be a part something bigger than their individual selves.”

In 2012, Martinez moved back to Los Angeles. Interested in implementing compost programs on a wider level, he wanted to focus on process in order to bring local businesses, restaurants and, of course, residents on board. “The missing link was that there has long been little conversation as far as where food goes after the table,” Martinez explained.

LA Compost started in 2013. At first, volunteers collected food waste (often referred to as “organics”) via bicycles. Food scraps were collected from businesses such as restaurants and juice bars, and in turn was composted at community supporters’ homes. The end product was sold or donated at local farmers’ markets, with funds benefiting school gardens.

Interest surged, and the LA Compost team decided they had to find ways to scale up to cope with the demand. “We didn’t account for how huge Los Angeles is,” Martinez told us, “as managing compost collections by bicycle was a nice dream, but not the reality.”

Having a patchwork of backyards was also difficult to manage, so in 2014, LA Compost decided to launch local compost hubs. Eight of these community compost hubs now operate across the Los Angeles area in locations as diverse as museums, schools and community gardens. Each hub keeps the organics within the local community, and also offers a shared space where residents can learn more about the composting process. The organization has a waiting list for at least 25 to 30 more hubs. Grants from local foundations and businesses such as Patagonia helped LA Compost expand their reach.

Now there is potential for compost to be an economic generator as zero-waste efforts in Los Angeles are growing. The Don’t Waste LA campaign, a multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to ramp up the city’s composting and recycling efforts, has in part resulted in a new city-wide waste hauling contract. City leaders say this new agreement will help reduce waste, but the big questions include how the city will deal with organic waste from yard clippings and food waste – and this is where LA Compost hopes to step in and have an even more pivotal role in Los Angeles. “There are a lot of opportunities for future collaboration with haulers and community groups,” Martinez said, “so we’re excited about 2017.”

In Northampton, Massachusetts, Pedal People has been hauling trash, recyclables and organics for 14 years. Founded by Ruthy Woodring and Alex Jarret in this town of 28,000, the worker-owned cooperative employs 17 active workers. Most of the waste is picked up by bicycle trailers and pedaled by the cooperative’s workers who on average make $20 an hour.

Shortly after its founding, local interest convinced Pedal People to accept compostables along with other household waste. At first the workers composted the materials at home. Eventually, the cooperative composted at a farm in Northampton; for the last several years, the organics have been delivered to either a city- or privately-owned transfer station; from there they are trucked to commercial composting facilities in western Massachusetts, which at most are 20 miles away.

Environmental awareness drives much of the local interest in composting, Woodring said. Northampton’s landfill ran out of capacity and closed six years ago. Now the town’s trash is hauled 280 miles away to a landfill near Seneca Falls, New York. Hence the awareness that the local landfill is no longer an option, and the importance of keeping organics local resonated all the more with more residents.

But in addition to the environmental impacts, Woodring says Pedal People’s worker-owned structure contributes to the organization’s continued growth. “I think worker ownership is an important part of our success, because no one is telling anyone else what to do,” Woodring told us. “No one is sitting in an office making up someone else’s route, telling them to ride a bike in 35-degree sleet and pick up compost. People take ownership in seeing the business succeed. And we love what we do.”

In sum, similar to much of the sharing economy, the more someone works at Pedal People, the more they get paid.

It is clear that community composting can help spark more interest in how food is grown and where it comes from; the process can encourage local gardening, as seen in Los Angeles; and keeping waste more local can help raise awareness about environmental challenges, particularly in a town like Northampton where options for dumping trash are limited. But can it become the foundation of a robust social enterprise?

Michael Martinez of LA Compost described this movement succinctly. “Chase the results; don’t chase the money,” he said as he concluded his interview with TriplePundit. “For us, it’s about as much as working with people as it is about working with soil. After all, without soil, there’s no food, nor healthy people.”

These examples show that turning waste into a resource can help augment one’s income – which is still impressive as these organizations are turning what many see as worthless into cash and, perhaps even more importantly, food. But the learning opportunities and community building that composting and community gardening generate offer by far the most value – and that benefit cannot be quantified. Considering the results, such an outcome is not necessarily a bad thing.

Image credit: Michael Martinez and LA Compost

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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